There are few things we in the media love more than a good hypocrisy story, which allows us to replay the oft-told narrative that politicians and those who work for them are fundamentally dishonest. And as hypocrisy stories go, this one’s a doozy:
President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner has used a private email account to conduct and discuss official White House business dozens of times, his lawyer confirmed Sunday.
Kushner used the private account through his first nine months in government service, even as the president continued to criticize his opponent in the 2016 presidential election, Democrat Hillary Clinton, for her use of a private email account for government business. Kushner several times used his account to exchange news stories and minor reactions or updates with other administration officials.
Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, set up the private account before Donald Trump moved into the White House and Kushner was named a senior adviser to the president in January. Once in the White House, Kushner used his private account for convenience from time to time — especially when he was traveling or using a personal laptop, according to two people familiar with his practice. A person who has reviewed the emails said many were quickly forwarded to his government account and none appear to contain classified information.
Republicans will not, of course, be chanting “Lock him up! Lock him up!” and launching 14 separate congressional investigations of this unconscionable breach of responsible email practices on the part of the president’s closest adviser. Why, it’s almost as though they were never really all that concerned about IT security!
So yes, Republicans are hypocrites. But the real hypocrisy here, the one with damaging results, isn’t theirs. It belongs to the news media.
The truth is that there are very few things that each party won’t condemn when the other side does it but defend when their own side does it. But it’s the job of the press to sort out what’s meaningful from what isn’t. In the context of a campaign, both sides will toss any criticism of their opponent that’s handy up against the wall to see what sticks. And in that metaphor, the media is the wall. Something sticks when the individuals who make decisions at newspapers, television networks and other media outlets decide that the story in question deserves extended coverage.
Kushner’s emails are probably going to get the appropriate level of attention — which is to say, about 1/1000th of the coverage Clinton’s emails got. The story will be around for a couple of days, it’ll be a little embarrassing for him, and then everyone will move on. Which is exactly what should have happened to the Clinton email story, given everything we know now. It was at worst a misdemeanor, but it was treated by the media like the Crime of the Century.
As studies of the coverage of the campaign confirmed, the Clinton email story got more coverage than any issue — more than the economy, or health care, or immigration, or climate change or anything else. Throughout the general election, as Gallup found, the word Americans were most likely to mention when they were asked what they had heard about Clinton was “email.”
That didn’t just happen. It was the product of decisions made every day by reporters, editors and TV producers. They said, again and again, “This is the story that needs to be covered right now.”
Why did they make those decisions? I’d argue that they had long operated on the assumption that Bill and Hillary Clinton were deeply corrupt, and it was their responsibility to find evidence for that assumption and then disseminate it. If a particular allegation turned out to be baseless and didn’t actually support the assumption of corruption, they would say that it was still worth extended discussion, because it “raised questions.” In the end, the public is essentially unable to distinguish between a thousand stories about something that shows Hillary Clinton being corrupt and a thousand stories about something that “raises questions” about Clinton being corrupt but doesn’t actually demonstrate any corruption.
In hindsight, those editorial decisions look positively deranged. On one side, you had a candidate who had a long history as a con artist — just before assuming the presidency, he was forced to pay $25 million to the victims of one of his schemes — and a career full of shady deals, broken promises and associations with grifters, swindlers and mobsters. On the other side, you had a candidate who used the wrong email. The problem wasn’t so much that the copious examples of Trump’s personal corruption weren’t covered individually. It was that most of the time, each scam, fleeced vendor or questionable real estate deal was covered briefly and then seldom revisited. It didn’t add up to a coherent, sustained media narrative about Trump in the same way that the press created a narrative about Clinton’s supposed corruption.
It’s not enough to say that there were exceptions, like how The Post’s David Fahrenthold doggedly pursued the story of Trump’s phony charitable giving. There are always exceptions. My most longstanding rule of media screwups is that whenever the press as a whole gets a story wrong, you can always find a reporter or two who got it right. The problem is what the bulk of the media did.
Nor can you say that they were only responding to what the Trump campaign was doing. The story broke in March 2015, before Trump was even a candidate. In hammering on her emails, he was responding to the huge amount of coverage the story had already gotten. And yes, other people’s decisions mattered, particularly then-FBI Director James B. Comey’s — first his decision to hold a highly unusual news conference criticizing Clinton even as the FBI decided that no charges would be filed in the case, and then his decision 11 days before the election to announce that the FBI was looking at a laptop belonging to Huma Abedin and Anthony Weiner because it had some emails from Clinton on it.
Journalists could have looked at the facts right at that moment — especially the fact that the FBI hadn’t actually read those emails and had zero evidence that there was anything problematic (let alone criminal) about them — and decided that it merited at most a brief story on page A13. Instead, they decided that it was a blockbuster revelation requiring multiple front-page stories and the deployment of teams of reporters to talk about it for days on end.
All of that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use this opportunity to point out that Republicans never cared about the security of government emails. Of course they didn’t. They were laughing the whole time. But the real lesson that the story of Kushner’s emails carries is about the media’s mistakes in 2016. We live with the consequences of those mistakes every day.